WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and the top Republican in Congress met at the White House late Thursday but there was no immediate indication of progress in the standoff over the looming "fiscal cliff" of tax increases and deep spending cuts that could trigger another economic recession.
With 18 days left before a deadline for averting the cliff, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner met for about an hour. They made no public comments following the sit-down, their second face-to-face meeting of the week.
The meeting came shortly after Boehner publicly accused Obama of dragging out negotiations on an agreement needed to avoid automatic across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to take effect at year's end. Other Republicans say such a tactic seems to be working when it comes to a deal forcing up tax rates for the wealthy.
The two sides appear far apart on the issue, and Boehner is scheduled to return home to Ohio on Friday.
Hours before the meeting, Obama told reporters a deal is "still a work in progress," while he walked from the White House to a staff holiday party nearby. Asked about Boehner's assertion that he was waiting to hear more from the president, Obama said only, "Merry Christmas."
Boehner told reporters before the meeting that the president continued to stall on Republican demands for spending cuts as part of any deal that includes raising taxes on the wealthy.
"It's clear that the president's just not serious about cutting spending," Boehner said. "He wants far more in tax hikes than in spending cuts." He said that's why there's been no deal.
But there's increasing resignation within the Republican Party that Obama is going to prevail on the rate issue since the alternative is to allow taxes on all workers to go way up when tax cuts implemented during George W. Bush presidency expire on Dec. 31.
"I think it's time to end debate on rates," said Republican Sen. Richard Burr. "It's exactly what both parties are for. We're for extending the middle-class rates. We can debate the upper-end rates and what they are when we get into tax reform."
Beyond the disagreement over tax rates, there is a deep philosophical disagreement on government spending, especially so-called entitlement programs like the Medicare health insurance program for older Americans and the Social Security pension program. Republicans want big cuts, and Democrats don't.
Dick Durbin, a key Obama ally in the Senate, said Thursday that he has been told that increasing the eligibility age of Medicare from 65 to 67 is "no longer one of the items being considered by the White House." In negotiations between Boehner and Obama more than a year ago, it was widely believed that Obama had been ready to accept the raising of the eligibility age.
Neither side has given much ground, and Boehner's exchange of proposals with Obama seemed to generate more hard feelings than progress.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said a deal must be reached "in the next couple of days or the very beginning of next week" to avoid the fiscal cliff.
She criticized Republican House leaders for sending lawmakers home on Thursday, saying they should stay in Washington and work on a solution. Last week, most House members left town on Wednesday.
Pelosi said, "Here we are once again having a two-day work week in the Congress of the United States."
Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has warned that Congress may stay in session over the Christmas holiday to reach a deal.
The Dec. 31 deadline to stop the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and the start of across-the-board spending cuts is the result of Washington's failure to complete a deficit-reduction deal last year. Even if an agreement is reached, the slow pace of negotiations is jeopardizing chances that it could be written into proper legislative form and passed through both the House and Senate before the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3.
The White House has slightly reduced its demands on taxes _ from $1.6 trillion over a decade to $1.4 trillion _ but isn't yielding on demands that rates rise for wealthier earners.
Boehner responded with an offer very much like one he gave the White House more than a week ago that proposed $800 billion in new revenue, half of Obama's original demand. Boehner is also pressing for an increase in the Medicare eligibility age.
Both sides accuse the other of delaying the talks. Democrats say Boehner is unwilling to crack on the key issue of raising tax rates on family income over $250,000 because he's afraid of a revolt by conservatives and from younger, ambitious members of his leadership team.
"I do have an increasing concern that the speaker ... is trying to string this out until Jan. 3 because that's when he would be re-elected as speaker," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "And I think he's nervous that if he can't get a majority of his House Republican members to support a reasonable agreement that that could put his speakership election in jeopardy."
Republicans say it's Democrats who are dragging out the talks.
"In the past 48 hours, the president has not been negotiating in good faith, in my opinion," said Rep. Pat Tiberi, who said he was increasingly pessimistic that a deal could be reached.